Metamorpho-poetic Legending in 1950s Film: (1) Ashima

If chorus and noumenal echo make our film feel somehow familiar to us as outsiders, the Carnival template is a third structural element that engages and blends (to me essentially) foreign, imported modes of staged-storying.

Not that “China” was in any sense an also-ran in its staging of (often) grand scale and multi-day collective celebrations, the grandest being of course the (lunar 1/15) yuanxiao dancing in mask, deafening pounding of drums and cymbals, columnar or ring dances, and above all shouting and (in most places) inter-modular contest of one variety or another. And usually overlapping with the carriage or annual excursion of a cultic, often Daoist-legended protective deity here offered a special access to sacrificial goodies and prayer -chant of one variety or another.

And (we are still on the subject of carnival” as a pan-cultural form) of course invariably decked out with a string of stage-stories, often studded with familiar tunes and lyrics, and enacted (even in the poorest communities) by fancily costumed stage-players, whose movements sometime seem to spill over into circus-like exercises in stilt walking and similar stunts.

But the mention of intra-festival theatre brings us to the matter of indigeneity (or, better, non-) in the way “Carnival” is presented within the story or by the story-narrator. These huge communal entertainments-cum-sacrifice almost invariably staged as markers of special occasion either amateur “operas” (vaudevilles, story-teller narratives with intermittent song) or in larger communities (urban) performances by professional companies, but they did not in these performances employ any kind if recursive diction: the event told its own story and disobliged neutral, non-participatory narrating (retelling) of what was going on. If the engaged public needed such tutelage (as indeed begins to happen with post-1949 cooptation by cultural anthropologists if not even earlier— ) it was a witnessing – sightseeing- and not celebrating public, one whose delegated reporters could not possibly (save perhaps in imitative dance and sound) “say” or inform a third party public about what was happening. Omniscience and the ability to watch all the modules with one eye and at the same time would have been needed for that. (We shall return to this in or analysis of “Five Golden Flowers”, (1959), where a painter and musician (song-transcriber) are brought in not (just) to observe but (more) to collect anecdotes or “translations” that would help chronicle the event as a whole, of course for non-participants, perhaps in turn stand-ins for Wang Jiayi himself, who spent several months during 1955 notating Bai culture in and around Dali).

Yet, though the lens seems to tell us otherwise, just as in Orfeo Negro, “carnival” is not a self-enclosing story: it is a milestone event within a larger narrative, knowable or embeddable by its social dynamics (mate-finding in particular), but not truly self-engrossing: it is in itself a piece of the unfolding drama, not the totality of the story being told (which would make it of course a non-story, a travel-documentary).

Which by no means reduces the impact/importance of this Event, in that (in these “borderland” or extra-Sinitic settings), through their place and linguistic or subcultural description, a lot of which emerges in the carnival sequence, we learn in large measure where we “were”/are”)- (“situating”)- by the details of what is shown. Bull-fighting, wrestling contests, and horse-riding/racing tell a Chinese audience that they are somewhere in Southwest, uphill “China” (Guizhou and Yunnan especially, but also in the Kham-“tribal” borderlands of Eastern Tibet). If the fighting bulls (actually “water-buffalo”) do not fight but kneel (or are drugged) to be speared to death then decapitated, we know even more specifically that we are in the vicinage of Wa (Va) “tribesmen”, whose butchering is an extension of headhunting. Exactly in the same way that the pony race around a medieval piazza tell us we are in Sienna.


But too specific locational-izing deflates myth and legending as pallets: in that the provision of such information serves a distancing and rapportorial function, like painting or, better, photography, and the more elaborate the (extraneous) presentation, camera-tracking, such as Turner’s rendering of Cologne as a caught-in-statis trading port, even Breughel’s of the Flemish country wedding) the less can we get caught up/mesmerized by any underlying or narrative myth in which the locus is within (or presented as) legend. Specifying known place and its particular behaviors (sacred as well as profane) forecloses open adventure and accident, not to mention wandering and losing ones way, which are the stuff of mythical storying at least at the level of the sub-cosmic vernacular “romance”. (The “recounted or chaptered story-tale, the story of the horseshoed voyage, of Odysseus, of Tannhauser). Traveling to Rome (or Lhasa) for religious purification or in pilgrimage convoy is an obvious setting for narrative digression or comic exaggeration, but it cannot evoke the “as if known unknown” quest for the Grail.

The grand gathering as mythical marker also falters even from within (that is, as a guideposts within storying) if (as is often the case) the entertainers (stage-actors and singers) are gypsy companies, ferrying a corpus of pre-scripted, often prompt-book sourced, stage-plots which are tweaked but never truly de-“situated” or posited as if happening nowhere but dream, utterly outside of documented (even if in garbled, corrupted manner) time and place. Their accounts – if they are true professionals – will be delivered in or through or in the form of mixed “high” diction or poetic quotation, and will quite often retell (to keep their audience in the picture) one of the “four great myths” or best known of the sanguo war-hero stories or perhaps tales of Daoist Immortals. Distancing into creation-storying non-place (“in the beginning there was no A and B = no where – and this is how… came to be as they are, etc”), folk-tales about avenging or otherwise interventive ex-mortals (chuanqi), or withdrawal into serial adventure tales about (for hill-country audiences) foreign and difficult-to-imagine adventuring admittedly take the listener to the threshold of mythical narrative, where (re) imagining replaces memory and opens the door to the subconscious. But if executed or performed as part of annual fairs or grand gatherings, – of stage-scripted metamorphic “event” – (the chuanqi genre’s role) -though acting as a stepping stone toward myth, cannot embed within truly chthonic legending. It is “from somewhere else”, but still “somewhere”, and evanescent: once the “fair”ends, the tellers or actors depart, taking their magical spy-glasses and impenetrable prompt-boo with them. The re-retelling, re-recital under the influence of archetype tinged memory, halts. The adventuring halts with it. .

To put the matter more simply, the broader the diffusion of a given fiction, the more the number of professional itinerant tellers, the more often it finds its way into stage (better still, printed) script, the weaker the enthralling, the less sense of somehow “knowing” the tale, of recurring dream, of what Benjamin provocatively calls “aura”. Which perhaps is why metamorphic tales work so well as prompters of Jungian hypnosis: they begin with the tangible but quickly displace it by insistently inserting disconnections: the transform reveals how disconnected “nature” is from preternature, the logic ultimately non-normative but rather demonstrative of celestial (super-geographic) agency acting in a purely impulsive (unfathomable) manner, in the midst of sense-blocking events (storms, floods, fire etc.).


But I am getting ahead of the film we are trying to “read”, or, better, “hear”.

If Ashima (qua film) shifts the cinematic tone from reality to what Zhou Enlai called “Romance” (his disguised term for “myth”), how and why does this happen? (I leave aside here the obvious “why”: this is perhaps the only pre-CR film that utterly effaces political and even social moralizing).

Three aspects of the filmed version come immediately to mind. In order of impact:

(1) the plot-centering “great fair” only mentioned in the filmscript in itself a mystery, not turning up in the primal tale; and when we DO encounter it in the film occurring dislodged from any identifiable place (though seemingly in Mile xian), only vaguely place+d in the time-cycle, not even having a name though the proceedings look distinctively the like the huobajie (Torch Festival), a prominent example of which does indeed occur in Mile during the 8th lunar month.

(2) there is no mention in the prologue of a discoverable place for the tale, but that lacuna in folk-fictional description may not tell us much (especially where Chinese speaking field interviewers might have well have misunderstood what was being explained – as the 6 year interval between initial discovery (1954, again in Mile (check this) of a seemingly intact extended version and a first publication (1960). We ARE told however (again in the prologue, where the storyteller is obliged to give the impression of knowing the names and locations he will enstory, that Ashina is the preeminent beauty queen of “Azhuodi”, a Yi term meaning something like Shangrila; in a subsequent aria she again tells us that “Azhuodi is an excellent land” (hao difang). To this day, scholars seem unable to agree where or what Paradise was, any more than they can agree on the historical bounds of “Yi” civilization. (The proximity of the “Long Lake” is our only guide). Strange indeed that a great fair should occur in a place so exaltedly named, but unfamiliar to all but a narrow group of mate-seekers.) Maids of course need to be :”fairest” amongst their visible peers (cohort) – indeed that is what the pair-dancing at the Festival is all about – picking the one who IS. But where the beauty contest occurs (“fairer than all the … in …?) and/or the implied scope of comparison is impossible to fathom: we know of it only through the prologue and singing, though the power of is shown to be such that the “all” from several days’ ride (99 days?) of travel pay court thrice daily.

(3) The third elusion is about the herdsman, sheep-herder. There is no record of flocks of sheep of any size in any of (S., Yi Yunnan highlands) in written records : moreover if we we take the “Long Lake” clue literally, we discover that about 80% of the surrounding countryside is (was) tall pine forest, something confirmed in almost all of Ashima’s songs, and associated with the steeply vaulted karst hills that in the end “are” the legend’s endpoint. This was (we know for sure) prime territory for small-game hunting, and is detailed as such in an early version of the take. But no four-legged herd animal could possibly maneuever or graze in such places (the Shaanxi folk-paintings? I think confirm this by the perilous cliff-edge positioning of the herd-front animals… descriptors of the testing of wandering male courage or prowess… )

Yet Ashima’s lover-“brother’ repeatedly appears (in the film narrative) with sheep, from the first moment we see him, and the herdsman’s necessary removal from his home becomes almost a code for disappearance, vanishing beyond sight or sound. And in turn one immediately intuits that the “gone away to herd sheep” is an expression of chronic poverty, hence of desperation, risk-taking. exposure to the worst and most unpredictable of nature’s mishaps. Further, his wanderings are always measured or mapped in abstract numerologies, huge multiples of 9 or 7, inconceivable as “real” measures of space or departure.

Of course the shepherd is also part part of the ill-fated pair in the “classical” Han metamorphosis tales (Tianxianpei/Buteterfly Lovers and “The Herdsman and the Weaver – the latter specifically mentioned) so one perhaps ought to detach it from mystery: it is there as a prompt for an outside, non-Minority “translation”, genre-founding or signboarding. .

But as a visual trope for (mutual) invisibility and primacy of hearing (echoing/song as second remove), the picture of the herdsman-on-horseback searching the hillcountry or guiding his Eurydice through and over it while singing to and for themselves (NOT for audience) is operatically convincing. What falls down in logical scrutiny may for that very reason become romantically credible for that very reason.


But let us go through these one by one. The grand assemblage – grander the further we get from lowlands and dense populations – seems to be understood as a necessary part of cinematic depictions of Minority culture when displayed in story: this in marked contrast with “China Proper” where filmed adventures (about the Red Army mainly) show almost nothing of them at all (the only exception that comes to mind is the 1957 “Lagu” minority tale Husheng lian (Love to the sound of the Reed Pipe, Changchun studio, music as ever by Lu Zhenbang).

How much this plot element is intended to tell us about economics, trade, and inter-“racial” relations varies, but the erotic (or proto-erotic) aspect – partnering, trysting – and the sheer flare of the dancing is virtually a constant, no matter how much attention the script-writer(s) choose to pay. To bypass it would not only un-story the story (anticipation, contest, culmination, and ensuing jealousy) but dislodge what Party-sponsored “collectors” of music valued most once they left Chinese-speaking territory (beyond which song lyrics became a nightmare): which was the (non-verbal) “sound” and pacing of collective, dual-sex mate-enticing dance and piping.

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